Fragment #35: Rudolf Arnheim on Lotte Reiniger

It is not easy to make fairy tales come alive for the eye as well as the ear, because the magic power with which children imagine what is told them is too easily paralysed by every image they see. Even the witchcraft of the film hardly ever matches the superior buoyancy of youthful imagination; in the pretty fairy tale films by Starewicz, the artistically constructed animals have something frighteningly robotic about them: they are uncanny, sleepwalking little machines. Lotte Reiniger utilises the ideal technique, the silhouette film. The silhouette is not as close to reality as a three-dimensional thing, no matter how imaginatively it may be thought out. It thus spares the viewer, particularly the child viewer, the fear that sets in when the fairy tale passes a certain point of vividness and becomes tangible reality. The moveable silhouette charmingly maintains the right balance between the product of art and life; we believe it enough to be enthralled, and we do not believe it enough to get the goose bumps we get when experiencing the supernatural.

Lotte Reiniger films Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle, developing an incredibly expressive outline as she goes. The swinging link chain that forms a tall Negro prince, the little velvet ball that rolls across the screen as Doctor Dolittle or his lazy piglet, the grotesque disproportionateness of a giraffe’s body and the slender elegance of a sparrow – the plucky scissors cut lively curves in the black paper, and living beings arise in pleasingly rounded, elegant forms. Everything is caricatured, but with so much sensitivity to the real nature of each creature that the accentuation never becomes a distortion.

When we keep in mind that the artist never sees one movement during the shooting, but moves limb for limb millimetre by millimetre on her animating table, and that every gesture must be pieced together from a hundred individual little pictures in one long process, it is almost unbelievable to behold how, when the work of months of patience flies by in seconds on-screen, every figure acts just right. The apes swing from the branches, the duck waddles, hurried and plump, the lion, a pompous heraldic animal, proudly sways his behind, the wave sprays, and the snow falls softly to the ground. It must be a very happy feeling for Lotte Reiniger, similar to when a musician hears his mute-born child for the first time, to see the unwieldy piece of carton – laboriously patched together with wires, and without the guidance of a human hand – dancing lively, amazing dances up on the screen, full of life as nature itself, and yet bound by the gracious style of her most charming personal designs.

Rudolf Arnheim (1928) Film Essays and Criticism. p.141-2.

Lotte Reiniger’s Cinderella (1922)

Cinderella (Lotte Reiniger, 1922)

One of the first films by the silhouette animator Lotte Reiniger was Cinderella (1922). Fairy stories comprise much of Reiniger’s output, most notably in the 15 shorts she made in the UK between 1953 and 1955. Her Cinderella (she made another version in 1954) is quite a faithful, if fleeting adaptation of the story, but its form and style are extraordinary.

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It all begins with a pair of scissors cutting out Cinderella from a piece of black card before placing her into the world of the story. In many shots, the action is vignetted by jagged edges, reminding us of the sharp edges that have crafted the materials of this tale. Animation is already well suited to fairy tales, which have provided story material for Reiniger, Jiří Trnka, Ladislas Starevich, Ray Harryhausen, Jan Švankmajer and that Disney bloke (Disney also released a cartoon of Cinderella in 1922, and a feature film of the same story in 1950, four years before Reiniger’s own remake). Animation allows the construction of a completely fabricated fantasy space that is bracketed off from the real world, evoking the enclosures of memory and imagination (though I might argue that Disney’s approach was less to do with evoking the imaginative and ephemeral experience of fairytales, and more about reshaping those tales in order to fit into the house style of his company). Animated figures provide archetypal rather than definitive renderings of fairytale characters, and particularly in Reiniger’s monochromatic stories, the images allow space for the viewer’s imagination to fill in the gaps. Her silhouettes make the gestures of the characters and carry out the actions that comprise each tale, but they are a partial conjuration, a world into which we peer rather than disappear. This is not meant to sound like an insult to Reiniger; her films are evocative and engrossing without pretending to present a definitive reading of the fairy tales. The shadows seem more like the ghostly accretion of many different versions pushing to the surface of memory.

Lotte Reiniger's Cinderella (1922)

On the other hand, Reiniger inscribes the film with her distinctive signature. Nobody else has defined a form of animation as authoritatively as she did, and the opening section, where scissors make the first cuts into the main character, conjuring her out of simple raw materials, displays the means by which the story is fabricated and marks it out as a product of her labour. Just as any storyteller provides an introduction that bridges the gap between the real and story worlds, so Reiniger draws us in by showing how she brings her figures to life. The power of enchantment exerted by the tale is also the power of an animator. That perfect fit between subject matter and form might go some way to explaining why so many animators have made fairy tale films.

In illustration of this final point, but mainly because I’m proud that I managed to time the frame grab just right, here’s a shot from her subsequent short, The Death-feigning Chinaman (1928), in which Reiniger’s hand is accidentally caught on camera, a blink-of-an-eye imprint of the animator that reminds us of her presence as the vivifying force operating in the interstices between the frames of the film itself:

Lotte Reiniger The Death-feigning Chinaman